Episcopal bishop asks for harmony in diocese

May 07, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Bishop A. Theodore Eastman, in his last address to a diocesan convention as its chairman, asked Maryland Episcopalians last night to end their fighting over contradictory moral teachings and redirect their energy toward "the service of Christ in the world."

Bishop Eastman, 64, has announced he will retire at the end of January. His appeal to lay and clergy delegates came at the beginning of a three-day annual convention already faced with opposing resolutions on sexual morality introduced by traditionalist Episcopalians and by a group of homosexual activists within the church.

Integrity Baltimore, a gay and lesbian Episcopal fellowship group that meets monthly in downtown Baltimore's Emmanuel parish, asked that a liturgy be authorized to give official blessing to "a long-term, covenanted relationship between persons of the same sex."

The resolution is supported by the Rev. F. Lyman Farnham, rector of Bolton Hill's Memorial Episcopal Church, where a service blessing the union of avowed lesbians was conducted last year and set off a controversy among diocesan clergy and laity that is still simmering.

The Foundation of Concerned Episcopalians, a traditionalist group, filed a series of resolutions asking the convention delegates to affirm what it believes are fundamental Christian principles abandoned or neglected by the church leadership.

Such principles, the traditionalists said, include prohibitions against sexual relations outside marriage and between persons of the same gender.

One of the resolutions presented by the traditionalists to the delegates meeting at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn asks them to clarify "that the Diocese of Maryland expressly rejects any concept or form of the blessing of unions of persons outside wedlock, whether of the same or opposite sexes, when such union has as an aspect the probability of sexual congress."

Other traditionalist resolutions would forbid extramarital sexual activity by the clergy and would bar the ordination of men or women who have engaged in such activity unless they repudiate it.

Bishop Eastman, reviewing what he saw as successes and failures of his nearly 11 years in the Maryland diocese, candidly referred to "fractious criticism, flagging confidence and fluctuating morale." His plea for an end to discord won a standing ovation.

"Let us strive for unity in this household, putting away all rivalries, all factionalism, all knee-jerk judgments, all demeaning attitudes, all condescension," the bishop said.

"Let us focus on the missionary task that God has given us in this time and place. Let us put all of our energy there, as servants of one another in the service of Christ in the world."

But after he spoke, divisions in the diocese began to surface. A committee recommendation not to seat lay delegates from four historic, urban parishes -- Old St. Paul's, Mount Calvary and Grace and St. Peter's in Baltimore and Emmanuel in Cumberland -- was overturned only after some sharp debate.

Supporters of the recommendation questioned whether the four parishes had theological rather than financial reasons for not paying their full assessments to the diocesan headquarters.

One doctrinal proposal by the Concerned Episcopalians group has been the source of heated debate at past conventions and drew a direct response from Bishop Eastman last night. This resolution asks the delegates to state categorically that Jesus Christ "is the Son of God and that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him."

The sponsors said the reaffirmation of the words of the New Testament is necessary "due to a current false teaching that avenues of salvation exist other than through the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ." Some opponents of the resolution have argued that it challenges Jewish salvation and therefore is anti-Semitic, which the sponsoring group denies.

Bishop Eastman quoted the biblical verse, which he said "has so strangely troubled us in this diocese of late," and offered the interpretation that a proper context of Jesus' words "is God's deep desire for inclusive relationships with all people, not a polemic that discriminates and separates."

But he asked that the verse not be debated at this three-day meeting "devoted to missionary and programmatic concerns." He proposed the creation of a separate annual convention of the diocese for the sole purpose of considering matters of faith and doctrine "without other distractions."

His hope, the bishop said, was that such convocations "would be occasions of respectful and charitable listening and speaking, where we can learn from one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

Another resolution submitted by Concerned Episcopalians denounces anti-Semitism but adds that Christian efforts to convert Jews should not be discouraged.

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